Lessons from my Father and a Summer Garden

My father had two girls, but I don’t think anyone ever told him we were girls. While other neighborhood girls were busy painting their nails and playing dress up, we were often working as his “go-fors” on any one of his many projects, or we were cleaning the yard, putting fertilizers around the tomatoes, or helping him get his crop of watermelons ready for the market. Dad loved the land, and he was a constant gardener.

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My experiences working in my garden this summer, made me reflect on dad and the legacy he passed on to us in understanding the value of work– not just any work but of “manual labor”– working with your hands. When I went to boarding academy in Trinidad, Manual Labor was a required course in the curriculum. I kid you not! Everyone had a pick of where they would work: on the farm, in the broom shop, on grounds, at the health food store, in the laundry, or in the cafeteria. And as I think of it now, what a valuable addition to the curriculum that was! There are gifts that come from the kind of work where we must bend our backs—work that makes curls droop, nails chip, sweat drip, muscles ache, and hands chafe. Yeah, that kind of work.

When I started posting garden updates on my Facebook page, one of my friends suggested that I take a picture in a straw hat, and wearing a long, white flowing dress that would hopefully blow in the wind, as I appeared to stare dreamily at the plants in my garden in a Martha Stewart inspired moment. I resisted. Why? Because, the truth is that gardening is far from glamorous– and I have the tan, the scars, and nails to prove it. Actually, this lack of glamor is one of the things I love about it! After spending most of my days in the world of books, nothing is quite as raw and unpretentious as digging in dirt, pulling weeds and battling with aphids, beetles, and caterpillars. Yes, not exactly a beauty queen moment. And yet, there is a beauty to it all that is beyond compare.

garden June

In the garden we are confronted with “life at the bone”, and it is here, according to Thoreau, that “life is sweetest”. In the garden we see that seeds shallowly planted can be carried away by birds, a heavy downpour can wash away the potential for life, and young seedlings must courageously battle the elements and bugs to have a chance at survival. I saw plants learn to grow where they had been planted—some beds were clayey, some too moist, sandy or lacking in nutrients— yet, they persisted growing and flourishing as best they could. In the garden, I grieved the loss of plants—eaten by critters that did not tend them. But then I watched them bounce back when not even one leaf was left on a chewed off stalk. That indomitable spirit spoke to me, inspiring me to replant and press on. It made me recognize that my part in the process was to sow the seed, water it, and cultivate the young plant. His part is to do what I cannot– breathe life into dead places.

I am grateful that dad cultivated in me an appreciation for the value of work with my hands. As I reflected on his legacy, I was reminded that the first work God gave man was to “farm the land and take care of it”. No doubt, God did not need Adam’s help. He, who made the earth out of nothing, did not need a co-laborer to keep his creation beautiful and “good”. However, in assigning Adam this work, God was handing him a gift (pun intended). I like to think that God was passing on to Adam a treasure that would nurture his own spirit, that would teach him important life lessons, and ultimately remind him that like the plants under his care, he was himself under the care of a master gardener—God himself.

tomatoes